Skincare in Korea is a somewhat exhaustive multi-step process, a fact which seems to have sparked a ton of intrigue in the beauty world as of late. To outsiders looking in, the “million-step” Korean skincare regimen sounds a bit extreme, but it all boils down to cleansing, exfoliating, treating, intensely moisturizing and applying plenty of SPF during the day. I guess the real differentiating factor between how Koreans take care of their skin and more Western routines is that in Korea, you’re programmed to start early— well before your first training bra—while our more American version of skincare tends to be a sudden mad dash to Nordstrom to buy $100 eye cream, hoping it will reverse some of the teenage UV damage when we hit the age of 30. Thorough skincare is really just a part of Korean culture—it's completely ingrained in your life since early childhood, when you're dragged along to the communal bathhouses by your mother to have your dead skin sloughed off with bright green viscose cloths.
When I first got to Korea, I was motivated to start up with a Korean-style routine because my coworkers thought I was so barbaric for my complete lack of one. They would say (rather bluntly) in passing, “I could see your dark circles from way over there,” or, “What is growing out of your skin?” or my favorite, “ P lease brush your hair.” So they obviously didn’t get the whole wavy California beach hair look, but their well-intentioned rudeness did get me thinking about my skin. And I’ll admit, I was (still am) shallow enough to be influenced by the flawless-faced actresses in Korean dramas—and I watch them all in HD! How Jun Ji-hyun has better skin in My Love From Another Star than when she starred in My Sassy Girl 13 years ago is just beyond my comprehension.
To those who believe they aren’t high maintenance enough for that bright, dewy skin: I didn’t either. But, like our American moms always said while shoving (their version of) Korean stir-fry into our mouths: just try, you might like it!
Step One: Make-up Removal + Oil Cleanser
Korean women typically use two cleansers, starting with an oil-based cleaanser to remove oil-based makeup, SPF, and other impurities on their skin from the outside. I use a cotton square soaked in Bioderma.
Step Two: Water-Based Cleanser / Foam Cleanser
Following the Make-up Removal and Oil-Based Cleanser, you will want to do the second cleanser, which is a Water-based cleanser or a Foam Cleanser, which removes any remaining residue on your face. You don't want something that is going to dry out your skin. You will use it to remove any remaining residue and impurities from your oil cleanse (sweat, dirt, make-up).
Step Three: Exfoliator
Use a gentle, non-irritating exfoliator 2-3 times per week to promote cell turnover, unclog pores, allow for better product absorption and keep skin looking youthful. Koreans often use gommage peels that allow dead skin to simply roll off with a mix of botanical and fruit extracts.
Purpose: Exfoliation not only cleans out clogged pores, but it also sloughs off dead skin cells. When you remove this dull layer of cells, brighter skin is revealed. This step is not recommended for daily use. If you have sensitive skin, you’ll only want to exfoliate once a week. If you have a tougher complexion, you can do it more regularly (about three times a week).
My Experience: I’m all for lazy exfoliating options like wipes instead of scrubs, which is why Cho’s recommendation of Neogen Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine ($27, sokoglam.com) was perfect for me. I could easily exfoliate away, while watching The Bachelor on my couch. The double-sided wipes were packed with red wine (which you could seriously smell, but in a nonalcoholic stench) and lactic acid. The gauze side was bumpier allowing you to really feel as though your sloughing away any gunk clogging up your pores. Then the quilted side gave you a gentle finish to the process. I did this three times during the seven-day trial.
I had a breakout under my jawline that I was really hoping would clear up with my new exfoliation routine. And while the bumps definitely decreased in size, the discoloration never completely faded.
You don’t always have to exfoliate (especially if you have sensitive skin), but keep in mind that exfoliating at least twice a week is crucial for clear, polished skin. Sloughing off dead skin cells makes it possible for the rest of your skin care products to mingle with your pores and do their magic. Gently massage or tap an exfoliant into your skin for smooth and silky skin.
Step Four: Toner
Korean beauty heritage is steeped in natural ingredients passed down from generation to generation. This tradition continues today with formulations that tend to shun harsh chemicals and draw from the Earth instead.
Purpose: “After you cleanse so many times, your skin is in a fragile state,” explains Cho. “So you want to really hydrate it.” She also explains that toner acts as a way to prep the skin, so it’ll absorb the following treatments better.
My Experience: Toner was always a skin-care step I skipped. It was after talking to Cho that I really came to appreciate this part of the routine, especially when partaking in such extensive cleansing. I tried Whamisa Organic Flowers Deep Rich Essence Toner ($40, glowrecipe.com). At the beginning of the week, I used a cotton round to pat the product into my skin because the consistency is very runny. But by day five, I was just pouring the liquid into my palms. Once I realized that it wasn’t just water (which is how it seemed at first) I didn’t want to waste any of the product that would soak into the cotton.
Think of your skin like a sponge—it’s more difficult to rehydrate it when it’s dried up and hardened than when it’s already a bit damp. Toners are the product that dampens your skin and balances its pH levels. Sprinkle one into your hands and tap it directly onto your skin or dispense it onto a cotton pad and gently swipe around your face working outwards.
Step Five: Essence
Essence is one of the most important steps out of Korean skin care.
Though formulated with varying viscosities, essences tend to be a bit more fluid and less concentrated than serums. Their main purpose is to moisturize the skin and make the most of the serums that follow. Think of your skin as a sponge: once it’s plumped up with water, everything else absorbs more easily.
Purpose: The essence is really the heart of Korean skin care, a step that is credited to their culture. Cho claims it’s of the most important parts of the routine. “It’s a treatment product similar to serums, boosters, or ampoules; but it’s more watery in consistency then the rest of those products, so it comes out like a toner.”
An essence is a kind of toner/serum hybrid made for hydrating and aiding skin repair and cell turnover. Apply it to freshly toned skin and pat it in.
Step Six: Treatments: Serum, Boosters, or Ampoule Treatments
These products are formulated with active ingredients that target specific needs by skin type, such as fine lines, loss of firmness, hyperpigmentation and dehydration. You can customize your regimen here, adding or removing products as you see fit. You can use them in any order, but generally thicker, more viscous products go on later.
Purpose: Cho explains that this is not a necessary step for everyone. “If you don’t have brown spots or pigmentation, you don’t really need to use [a treatment],” she says.
My Experience: Since redness is a major issue of mine, I was all in on this serum step. It’s also one that I’m used to completing on a regular basis. For this week, I used Blossom Jeju Pink Camellia Soombi Essence Serum ($64, glowrecipe.com), which feels a lot like a gel but spreads easily. It left a smooth layer over the skin similar to how a cream would without any stickiness or grease. It also gave a dewy effect that didn’t look wet or sweaty, just faint enough to look healthy. I’m crediting the serum combined with the moisturizer for my skin feeling so smooth in the mornings.
Consider boosters, serums, and ampoules as concentrated essences that directly treat the issues you’re most concerned about. Whether they target dull skin, large pores, pigmentation, wrinkles, or acne, serums are the ideal skin-perfecting step. Gently tap these into your skin!
Step Seven: Sheet Mask
Single-use sheet masks are formulated with the same active ingredients as serums, but are more of an “a la carte” version that you can use as necessary. A good arsenal of sheet masks enables you to customize your routine depending on how your skin is feeling.
Purpose: The purpose of your mask depends on what your skin needs. Cho recommends a hydrating mask like Skinfood Hydro Fitting Snail Mask Sheet ($13, sokoglam.com). But you can also choose one for brightening that may be packed with vitamin C. This is not an every-night step, you really only need to do it twice a week. In fact, Cho explains that you can swap a sheet mask for a serum or essence to cut time off your routine. “The mask contains those treatment products already,” she explains.
My Experience: One thing I was dying to include during this experimental week was the Blithe Patting Splash Mask ($48, glowrecipe.com). The watery texture tricked me into thinking the product would just run down my face, which wouldn't give it any time to sink in or have a noticeable effect. But damn Daniel, that was not the case! I tried it twice, both times in the shower since I didn’t want to "splash" all over my clothes or bathroom counter. I poured a cap full of the Green Tea mask thinking I was in for a nice calming green tea treatment. But after patting onto my skin, I could really feel the active ingredients against my skin. It was clear this product is a seriously potent mix of ingredients (and that explains why it only takes 15 seconds to work). The first time, I got too close to my eyes, and I couldn’t even open them because of the stinging. By my second attempt, I learned my lesson.
For the sheet mask, I tried Amorepacific Moisture Bound Intensive Serum Masque, ($90, us.amorepacific.com). It was much thicker than most sheet masks I’ve used, but that meant it stayed on easily. And although it wasn’t dripping in serum like most, the tight seal made my skin feel tighter and plumper after removing. I also tried Skinfood Hydro Fitting Snail Mask Sheet ($13, sokoglam.com), which was incredibly moisturizing and plumping. Although this was packed with wet serum, it didn’t drip and absorbed fairly quickly.
If essences are the heart of the Korean skin care routine, sheet masks are the soul. All you have to do is put one on and chill for 15-20 minutes (and probably take a selfie). Sheet masks provide you with a quiet, meditative, and skin-nourishing ritual that imparts maximum treatment to your skin. Use one at least once or twice a week or every single day if you’d like!
Step Eight: Eye Cream
EYE CREAM - The skin around your eyes is thinner and more easily dehydrated, so it should be treated with a cream specifically formulated to protect, nourish, brighten or de-puff.
Purpose: Depending on the eye cream you choose, this could focus on everything from fine lines to dark circles. Basically, if you have any undereye concerns, there’s a cream for it.
My Experience: In a light patting motion, I applied Erborian Gineng Infusion Total Eye ($36, usa.erborian.com) every night. This particular eye product was a creamy texture that absorbed quickly. So I didn't have to do any rough rubbing to get the cream to sink in. “When you’re pulling and tugging at the area, it causes premature wrinkles,” explains Cho. During my regular routine, I’ll apply an eye cream about two times a week. But I saw my dark circles and puffiness diminish by using this every night. I also applied it during the day a couple times, and this product was great to wear under makeup without smearing my concealer.
The skin around your eyes is thin and delicate, which means you should treat it like the fragile flower that it is. An eye cream provides the area with extra helpings of hydration and protection. Use your ring finger to very gently tap (never rub!) eye cream around the entire orbital bone, avoiding the water line.
Step Nine: Moisturizer/ Face Cream
MOISTURIZER - A moisturizer designed for your skin type creates a barrier that will lock in all the beneficial ingredients you’ve just applied, instead of letting them evaporate out of your skin.
Purpose: This step is simply to lock in skin’s moisture. And I’m telling you, next to daily SPF, skin hydration is key for supple, younger-looking skin at all ages.
My Experience: Even if you complete the most basic skin-care routine, moisturizer should be worn day and night. I switched over to Belif The True Cream Moisturizing Bomb ($38, sephora.com) for this particular experiment. I looked forward to applying this cream every night. It felt like it was doing its duty, sealing in all the other skin care while providing hydration. Waking up ever morning, my skin didn’t feel greasy or sticky.
For my day cream I used Erborian Bamboo Crème Frapee Skin Reviving Fresh Gel ($43, sephora.com), which I actually used before my week with Korean skin care. I loved the sheen this left on my skin underneath my makeup or barefaced. And it was so light it mixed well with the SPF.
Hydration is your express lane to dewy, glowing skin, so it’s important to find a moisturizer that works for your skin type. They come in many forms—from an emulsion, lotion, gel, or cream—all of which work to seal in moisture to plump up skin and smooth away any fine lines. Pat a moisturizer into your face and neck morning and night every single day. On days when your skin feels extra parched, swap your regular moisturizer for a sleeping pack.
Step Ten: SPF
SPF (A.M. ONLY) Sunscreen is huge in Korea, and rightly so. Every morning, finish off your skincare regimen with either a dedicated sunscreen or a BB cream or cushion compact that includes SPF.
Purpose: “We’re pretty obsessed about SPF,” says Cho. It seems self-explanatory, but we can never stress enough how important sun protection is on a daily basis. Cho claims that it’s applying SPF regularly that’s the biggest differentiator in the Korean regimen.
My Experience: I made my own little two-step SPF program. I started with the Neogen Day-Light Protection Sun Screen ($30, sokoglam.com), which I applied after my moisturizer every morning. And I finished everything off with the Amorepacific Color Control Cushion Compact Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ ($60, us.amorepacific.com). This bouncy compact filled with tinted moisturizer not only provided SPF coverage, but it also gave me a glowing complexion without that cakey makeup feel. A cushion compact seemed like the best place to end since it's a makeup innovation that's also fresh out of Korean beauty culture.
I have to say, during my seven-day experiment, only one night felt like work. The other six nights, it was a nice way to unwind while chatting with my roommates or catching up on The Affair. “Western culture’s skin-care routine is more of a chore almost,” claims Cho. “You just put on whatever you have in the bathroom.” But she explains that with a Korean-skin mind-set, it’s all about pampering and taking care of yourself. By the end of my vigorous week, my skin felt smoother. My red, blotchy inflammation calmed down and my undereye bags were almost nonexistent. I was so confident in my skin, I didn’t wear makeup the following week. Will I do all 10 steps again? Probably not. Using a toner, essence, AND serum seemed redundant. But double cleansing is the way forward for my city lifestyle.
Even if you’re stepping outside for just a couple of minutes, you must wear sunscreen. It’s the easiest and most effective way to prevent premature aging (and skin cancer!). Apply every—and we mean every—morning, reapplying throughout the day as needed. It’s important to put this on last so it can fully shield your skin from UV rays without being diluted by prior products.
Extra: Sleeping Mask
Skin regeneration goes into overtime while you sleep, and no-rinse sleeping masks make the most of this process. Packed with active ingredients, they feel like creams and stay on your skin all night so you can get your beauty sleep (literally).
My favorite for anything that is dry from lips to my nose to my ears to my nipples. This Vaseline-like ointment was originally designed for the chapped nipples of nursing mothers, but it’s now used on the chapped lips of every major supermodel. Makeup artists like Tom Pecheux have this ointment on hand because it can be used to buff out dry, flaky skin. It also doesn’t look glossy, so you can apply any lip color on top. I’ve even used it in the winter to soothe my cracked lip corners; I put it on before bed, and by morning it’s worked its magic. (Note: This is sold out on Amazon; until it’s back in stock, you can find it on eBay.)
Best eye make up remover that goes on like water and is really powerful. Hands down, this is one of the best makeup removers I have ever tried. It works the way you wish water would by washing away even the thickest layers of makeup, making your skin feel refreshed and free of grime. It also cuts through waterproof makeup and the smokiest of smoky eye shadows. Plus, if you use it to patch up a mistake, you can apply makeup immediately after, since it doesn’t leave behind an oily residue. It comes in several formulations for sensitive, normal, and oily skin. The one with the pink cap is the regular version; you’ll often spot makeup artists buying it in bulk.
As you’ve probably noticed, the French do not believe in treating the skin harshly. In any French drugstore, harsher treatments like exfoliators (or gommages) are far and far between, and the focus is on products that coddle the skin. This thermal water delivers a mist fine enough to water an orchid. This is literally just fancy water (and most likely fancier than the water you drink), but it feels really good on the skin. Use it on planes or to refresh your foundation during the day once it starts to get dry.
You could treat your sunburn with watery American aloe vera. But somehow using this rich, creamy French ointment seems chicer. Inès de la Fressange says she uses this for burns, dry skin — pretty much everything.
Sanoflore Nuage de Fraîcheur deodartant